I know I’m not alone here. I know there are millions of people who, like me, have always been enamored with the idea of space travel. We dreamed about putting on that suit and helmet and being launched out of the atmosphere. We imagined life without the shackles of gravity. We watched “SpaceCamp” seven or eight times a week until, thankfully, something better came along in “Apollo 13.”
The moon? It wasn’t some ball of rock in the depths of space; it was our destiny.
We exist. And I still get goosebumps every time I hear about some space mission. I still possess the bad habit of finding my way into the astronomy section of bookstores and spending hours leafing through books on the space program. Friends don’t know this. Family members don’t know this. But it’s true.
So I spent a good deal of this past Saturday watching intently as everyone and their brother tried to figure out what exactly went wrong on the Columbia shuttle’s descent back to earth. And I heard everyone from Walter Cronkite to shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore say that Americans too easily forget just how dangerous space travel is, and just how amazing it is that Saturday’s disaster was only the third time NASA lost astronauts on a mission.
That’s certainly true. There is no doubt that space represents the most dangerous and mysterious frontier imaginable, simply because its limits far outreach the confines of our minds.
But there’s something more that poses an even greater danger to Americans in the wake of Saturday’s tragedy. The real problem, in my view, is that, were it not for the explosion, the shuttle would have landed safely. It would not have been in the news. It would not have been important. About 90 percent of Americans wouldn’t have even known that the mission was over, if they even knew that it had ever begun.
STS-107, Columbia’s ill-fated mission, was a significant voyage. Though the intentions were purely scientific, one part of the ship’s cargo got quite a bit of news coverage. Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, was a member of the seven-person crew that launched on Jan. 16. The launch, for the first time in recent memory, was prominently reported on the Internet news wires directly after liftoff sent the first Israeli into space.
For this reason, I was able to catch a story about the mission on launch day. It was a 15-minute return to my old dreams. What had become almost an irrelevant event, the launching of men into space, was suddenly back in the news. Then I took a shower and went to class. And I forgot. Forgot that at any given moment, it was possible that seven people in an oddly shaped ship could be flying right above me. Forgot, until my roommate told me Saturday morning that a space shuttle had exploded.
But at least I got to forget. Had this been just about any other mission, America’s first contact with the astronauts would have been in the form of an obituary. Astronauts, the people we all wanted to become, have become as important to many Americans as the people who clean the shuttle. Hopefully, that ended Saturday.
We’ve gotten too good, too big, too quick. We’ve been to the moon, so we won’t pay attention until man stands on Mars. That International Space Station is fine, but damn it, by the year 2003, weren’t we all supposed to be living there already?
America’s space program costs billions of dollars a year to carry on. And that money goes to some of the most important explorations that humankind has ever seen. Nothing groundbreaking may have been intended on STS-107, but look at what space in general represents. Astronauts are congruous with the pioneers of exploration on earth. Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong. The list of great explorers will continue to grow as NASA finds ways to put people in places beyond imagination.
Saturday, anyone associated with NASA asserted that qualified people would work to identify what went wrong, and then the program will continue. What’s more important, however, is that someone finds a way to make people realize the importance of space exploration. Once NASA can get through the mourning period for Saturday’s tragedy, it needs to find a way to make sure that space no longer becomes a fascination that youngsters betray when they become teenagers.
Everyone knows the stories about crew members dying during Columbus’ voyages to the New World. Nevertheless, the missions carried on. And here we are to show for it.
But where will we be hundreds or thousands of years from now? That’s the question NASA needs to find an answer to.
Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.